Screened at the 2017 Traverse City Film Festival, the unique storytelling helped me learn more about the Ojibway and reconnect with my culture.
According to the TCFF film guide, “the Khalil’s examine what it’s like to be a modern Ojibway. Inspired by the story of The Seven Fires, a prophecy that foretold the arrival of Europeans in America, the brothers focus on their home in Sault Ste. Marie in the Upper Peninsula. Past and present collide in this imaginative, sensational investigation into the importance of tradition and the price of assimilation.”
After the screening, Adam met with the audience. In minutes, he was discussing who gets to tell someone’s story, performing his identity for others, what a group needs to share and keep secret, being stared at and gazing back, ethnographic grabbing of information, cultural appropriation, information compared to knowledge and resisting.
I felt an exchange of cultures with Adam; I heard his voice, his experience of his history. In a non-competitive way, I also internally connected what he shared to disability culture. Every time I’m in public, I’m performing my disability identity. Whether I’m getting into my car, at work or grocery shopping. I breathe resistance; to any example of unequalized power. Once, in France, I was refused service because the owner said he couldn’t serve me properly at his only open table. Every part of me resisted this denial, until my French friends revealed the futility.
Sometimes strangers staring at me don’t realize I may be staring back as they watch me. Often, I tell well-meaning people that how I’m physically doing something looks more pained than it is. Many health care folks inform me that to be healthy I must wash my hands and drink lots of water, without the knowledge that restrooms are often inaccessible. Persons with disabilities speak differently to one another than they do to the able-bodied. We hold secrets and truths that aren’t readily shared outside of our group.
Every TV show, book or movie featuring disability prompts me to ask, “Whose story is this? Who gets to tell it? What do the varied members of the disability community think? Have the creators done their personal and professional work?
In my life, cultural appropriation has taken many forms; well-intended people “trying on a day in a wheelchair,” able-bodied folks bragging that they’re using their deceased grandma’s handicapped parking placard and others nervously apologizing for occupying the one accessible restroom stall, as I’ve languished next to a row of empty standard stalls.
I won’t soon forget Kylie Jenner sitting in a gold covered wheelchair on the December 2015 cover of Interview. Her stylized doll appearance was meant to convey women with disabilities as exotic. And, at this time of year, umpteen nonprofits mail fundraising appeal letters. Many have a strong victim current referred to as “inspiration porn.”
I am one voice, with many stories. There are millions of voices in my culture. Author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, explores “The dangers of a single story” in her TED talk. Chimamanda reminds me to strive to act with sensitivity and respect of context. Her words encourage me to invite others to share their culture with me. And, for me to share mine.
Susan Odgers is a 30-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 41 years. She is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached by contacting the Record-Eagle.
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